Tag Archives: soccer news

Five Reasons to Get Off Your Arse and Go to the Match

14 Nov

1. Avoid the wisdom of television commentary. No longer will you have to risk tackles on the obvious from the pundit class. Take this gem attributed to a former well known coach turned pundit, ”I believe in the principle that if you go one goal down, you need two to win.” Turn it off.

2. Participate in one of those Poznan shoulder-bracing, back to front type goal celebrations (pictured), reaffirming your belief in the power of backwardness and the chance at actually hugging another person for the first time in twenty years.

3. Actually prove to yourself that people gather in more places than Facebook or Twitter.

4. Be free to yell in the public forum. Burn those caustic remarks you have been waiting to use against your most hated enemies, while making grotesque gestures to the opposing team that may be captured on television prompting your mom to wonder where she went wrong.

5. You can’t skip through a recorded game on your DVR to get to the goals, avoiding all those terribly boring vacuities associated with association football. Patience as a virtue, wait for it…

Read Alan Black’s soccer column each week, in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.


The Wee Man Rules in Football

28 Jul

I grew up in Scotland. The wee man was ubiquitous. And he could be dangerous. The big man was wary. Don’t annoy the wee man. His punch reached above his stature. You didn’t see it coming. He was down there. And you couldn’t catch him. He was fast. It was the same on the soccer field.

One of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic, fielded a player named Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone (pictured). He reached five feet, two inches. The fans loved him. In the sixties and seventies, he buzzed defenses with a dizzying zigzag. Big defenders employed every dirty trick to stop him – swats and hacks failed. Height jokes only provoked him to topple the tall. Nothing could repel the bite of wee Jinky. He was vital to Celtic’s 1967 European Cup winning side, the first British club to achieve the feat. If he were around today, Barcelona would have him on their team.

Barcelona is the smallest team in Europe. Their star player, Lionel Messi – nickname La Pulga, the Flea – is three inches below the team average, which is just short of five feet ten. As a kid, he took hormone growth shots with his cornflakes in the morning. He fits right in with small teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi, forming a diminutive triumvirate that dominates world soccer. No net is safe when they strike for it.

The wee man has ruled for decades. Go back over half a century to the great Hungarian player, Ferenc Puskas, a goal-scoring machine at five foot seven, eighty-four goals in eighty-five matches for his country. Pele, the greatest of all-time, nudged five feet eight, won three World Cups and became world soccer’s biggest star. His Argentine rival for that lofty accolade was Diego Maradona. God handed him a mere five feet five and that was enough to win the World Cup handily in 1986.

These guys possessed a low center of gravity combined with excellent technical skills boosted by an ability to rapidly change speed and direction. Their dominance forced defensive tacticians to think hard. One method was to assign a defender to shadow the wee man.

A famous example – an Italian defender, the paradoxically named Claudio Gentile, was far from sensitive when he removed Maradona’s sting at the 1982 World Cup after sticking to him like a glue trap for the whole game. “Soccer is not for ballerinas,” he said afterwards. Italy won the tournament.

If marking failed, brutality stepped in. Pele was kicked off the field during the 1966 World Cup vowing to never play again. Thankfully he changed his mind. In the eighties, the Basque, Andoni Goikoetxea, known to his friends as the Butcher of Bilbao, attacked the luckless Maradona with a savage tackle that destroyed the Argentine’s ankle, shredding his cleat. Later, reports claimed the Butcher displayed the shredded cleat like a trophy on top of his television set.

It can be dangerous being the wee man battling in the field. Many plot their downfall. Just ask Napoleon. But for all those aspiring soccer kids out there who are on the short side of the ruler, take heart from the fact that soccer is your game to master.

Follow Alan Black at The Beautiful Blog on Facebook

The Strange Case of Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers Football Club

11 Jul

Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame, penned a novella that many consider to be a foundation stone of modern fiction’s addiction to substances, transformation and death – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll liked to swallow chemicals turning himself into something unpredictable, Mr. Hyde. It’s a good metaphor for the calamity that is tearing Scottish soccer apart.

Think of Scottish soccer as a test tube in Dr. Jekyll’s lab marked with skull and cross bones, WARNING – DO NOT SHAKE! Sitting at the top of the mix is the colors of Irish green and British blue – green is the substance called Glasgow Celtic Football Club bonded to the blue known as Glasgow Rangers Football Club. Mix them up and they can explode but when they sit side by side at rest they produce something called the Old Firm, a successful alliance of opposites that has largely dominated Scottish soccer, economically and culturally, for over a hundred years. The elements that make up their wholes would require too long a label to delineate – suffice to summarize it as an emulsion of historical grievance, religious division, sectarianism, and nationalist politics that produces a soccer clash unrivaled anywhere in the world. The Old Firm is the defining intense soccer rivalry. Super hot, beyond sport.

But now things have changed. The tube has been ruptured. The blue half of the mix has evaporated. Rangers have been declared bankrupt due to many years of mismanagement. They consumed a hubristic formula of reckless expenditure in an effort to destroy their other half, Celtic. They failed. And were left weak to the point of death like Dr. Jekyll.

They have been discharged from the top Scottish league. The league rules and the animosity of rival clubs and their fan bases dictated their plunge. They now face the prospect of starting from scratch in the bottom division of Scottish football, three levels below the top tier. The economic implications are negative. Fears for other teams evaporating are real. Rangers worked the pump of investment in the Scottish game – their games with Celtic broadcast globally, a premium brand – the Old Firm was the bank that all the other clubs had an interest in. No Old Firm game and it could mean less or no money from TV contracts, and therefore less monies to share with the other clubs. The prospect of Scottish soccer boiling down is now a possibility.

The Scottish Football Association believes it may be the end for the Scottish game should Rangers not be allowed to return to the top flight within a year. Besides the economic armageddon for the clubs, the chiefs have warned of “social unrest” if Rangers are exiled to the deep. It’s an extraordinary claim that social strife could result as a consequence of a soccer club going bust. The commentary from Scottish soccer fans has ranged from celebratory dances on Rangers grave to dire warnings of revenge when/if Rangers return from the shadows.

Dr. Jekyll was unrecognizable after swallowing the poison – disfigured, mean and hostile – and finally death. Will Scottish soccer follow the script or synthesize a new beginning free from the mix of the Old Firm chemistry?

Euro 2012 – Week One View from the San Francisco Sofa

15 Jun

Go charge at windmills if you think Spain has run out of energy.  The reigning champions still possess the power to blow defensive walls apart. Their little midfield cannon, Andres Iniesta, can lob at will. Barcelona’s Xavi, can spot the ball with illumination (is he not a Robert Downey Jr. doppelganger?) And Fernando Torres may have found his mojo. Spain could be unstoppable. Woe to opponents. They finished the Irish off yesterday. Bar owners in Poland are lamenting Ireland’s exit.  Stouts abandoned.

Gone are the relics of the Italian defensive system – score a quick goal and then build a ten men defensive wall worthy of design employed by the Emperor Hadrian. Unlock the new exciting Italian way. Think bunga-bunga party at Berlusconi’s villa; thrills and spills, plenty of play, action on the wings.  It may not guarantee wins but it beats being negative.

England and France battled to a low scoring tie in a parallel to the stalemate of the 100 Year War between the nations. The Brits just love waiting for something to happen. Throwing caution to the wind has never been an English soccer trait. Not to say that they won’t progress from their group but one gets the feeling that unless the word “attack” is added to the playbook, the EXIT sign may soon be flashing. And they can sing God Save the Queen as they leave.

The Russians are coming. Unable to conquer the world through the grayness of Marxist-Leninism, the best alternative is to conquer through soccer. Hosting and then winning the World Cup in 2018 is the prize. Consider Euro 2012 as a warm up for that event. No expense will be spared by Russia’s oligarchy to build a team ruthless with ambition and drive. Watching the Russians demolish the Czechs and contain the Poles this week had an ominous nostalgia about it. There is new confidence in Russian soccer.

A twitter feed tracked soccer media references to World War II. It wouldn’t be Europe without it. Germany and Holland never really got along after the unpleasantness. They clashed Wednesday in Group B. The Germans burst the dyke with a 2-1 win. While not dead, the Dutch need other results to go their way in the last group game. They need Germany to do them a favor and beat Denmark. Ask nicely and they might…forget it!

The Irish fans sang their anthem louder than anyone has ever sung an anthem. The Irish legions belted out the Soldier’s Song, so loud ripples ran on the River Liffey in Dublin. Playing in their first major tournament in ten years, the Irish fans brought the craic and a catholic sense of fun to the proceedings, (that’s catholic without the Vatican C). Too bad their players could not convert the ball into goals.

ESPN studio coverage has sparked with soccer culture clashes. America’s Alexi Lalas is never one to hold back in tackles. He took to task Germany’s former captain turned media guy, Michael Ballack, in possession of a precise calm delivery. Redhead Lalas got pissed after Ballack announced the USA would never win anything. Later, he hacked Irish pundit Tommy Smith to shreds over Ireland’s dismal performance against Croatia. Derision flew into the old onion bag. The bickering continues.

Remember the German octopus cum oracle that saw the future during World Cup 2010? He died. Stepping up to the crystal ball as a replacement is a psychic raccoon. A zookeeper in England claims the beast has visions of England winning. Millions cry: I’ll have what the raccoon is drinking! Never make predictions in soccer.

The Dark Ages – What if the USA Failed to Qualify for Brazil 2014?

6 Jun

Imagine the scene – Clint Dempsey’s face is covered by the darkest shadow and it has nothing to do with forgetting to pack his razor. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, once the blond, now the gray, is catatonic. TV images show the colors on US painted faces dissolving in tears. The Stars and Stripes is lowered at the stadium. Somewhere inside the byzantine FIFA, bureaucrats ransack files to find a reason to disqualify a small country already packing for the beaches of Rio. No one steals the economic thunder of World Cup corporatism – but no reason can be found, and FIFA has to keep its new nose clean. The USA is out. A dark specter haunts the soccer fields of America. Fans are starved of USA! USA! Enemies pounce and eviscerate the alien game – the haters have been waiting for this moment for a long time, those foul bastards. Play the scary music. Would it be a dark age for US soccer?

Think of this argument. Major League Soccer’s existence, founded 1995, is enveloped through the four-year cycle of World Cups. And its growth has been connected to the success and failures of the US team at the tournament. At France ’98, the national team played rubbish and went home early. By 2002, there were questions as to whether MLS might survive – franchises were going bust. The surprising US quarter-finals appearance in the World Cup that year – including the rise of  Landon Donovan’s star and victory over Mexico – transfused interest. Expansion followed. Leap forward to South Africa 2010 and Landon Donovan’s famous last minute strike against Algeria which sent waves of patriotism around the fifty states. US soccer was stocked again and MLS got even fatter. So what would MLS feed on if the nightmare was real?

MLS has built silos in its field. Soccer specific stadiums for one. A place called home for the majority of its teams. Stock them with the grass roots fan movement that has been nourished on a diet of organic soccer and foreign grains. The many who have played the game, fans who cross over from other sports, those who occasionally migrate from the sofa-centric fix of the Fox Soccer Channel to attending a domestic game. Irrigate some TV revenue and the odd foreign star showing up for his American swansong. Look over the horizon to the promise of the sun rising on Russia 2018.

But no one wants to go there. In Klinsmann we trust. Produce enough aggression and finishing to carry the flag to Rio. USA kicks off its World Cup qualifying run against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday June 8 followed by a trip to Guatemala on Tuesday June 12. Six points in the feed bag would keep the sun shining. Rio, here we come.

Manchester Derby – An Ideological Battle

27 Apr


Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, is hard. Before welding soccer teams together he worked in the shipyards on the river Clyde in Glasgow. Tough town. Tough men. They call it the city of the stare. Glaswegians have been known to use head butting as a management solution for conflict.

Ferguson is famous for his wrath. Players speak of “the hairdryer’ effect when he bawls in their faces. Mad as hell, he kicked a cleat at David Beckham, direct hit between the eyes. He created Eric Cantona, the famously brilliant French maverick possessed with so much elan that he entered the stands and karate kicked a fan in the head for jeering at him. Fergie understood. He made Cantona his captain.

The Glasgow native is the most successful British coach ever. Forty-eight trophies are on the mantelpiece including two European Cups. Now seventy, observers scan for signs of weakness in his mettle. They find nothing. No softening of his will for winning and no weakness in his brass for the fight. He’s Clyde built. This Monday he faces a battle royal in the 162nd Manchester derby.

United’s cross-town rivals, Manchester City are snapping at the heels of their more famous neighbors. City is stoked with world-class players. Drill that to the Mid East oil money that owns them. They have sunk over a billion dollars on the project to break United’s grip on success. 43 years have passed since City last won the league.

Ferguson had socialism hammered into him in the shipyards of Red Clydeside. It dominates his thinking.  He is the father of the team collective and he requires that consciousness in his players. They are his apprentices. Developing youth is his way. By contrast, City’s guild is all about moneyed individuals, and some would say, mercenaries. Monday’s final whistle will likely decide which side of Manchester becomes this year’s English champion, and which ideology ascends.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter.

Relegation – Not Only The Titanic Sinks

13 Apr

MLS coaches go to bed nightly without fearing relegation. Most world soccer leagues operate on a system where the worst teams over a season fall into a lower league, replaced by the best coming up from below. Apply the word disaster to the relegated. Those going down lose revenues, a fire sale of their best players likely follows. Woe betide! Fans are stricken. Relegation can mean the wilderness. Some teams never return from the depths.

Think Titanic. The English Premier League season is coming to a close. Five teams are locked in a death struggle at the bottom of the table. Every point gained, every goal scored, every goal conceded could make all the difference. The players are desperate. They throw every ounce of effort into hope. An animal threatened can be dangerous. So it is with failing soccer teams. Teams at the top of the table competing for honors do not relish facing those sides staring at oblivion. Survival is the greatest motivator. See the proof in relegation threatened Wigan’s shock victory over defending champions Manchester United on Wednesday. History is filled with great escapes. On the last day of the season some teams will survive the drop, while others go under. It is pure emotion.

Will US domestic soccer ever have a relegation/promotion system? Not in the near future. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, an executive at MLS, “…it’s a complicated issue.” Where to begin? The US soccer market is not stable or big enough to sustain such a system. Lower leagues like the NASL are volatile. Teams come and go. MLS owners are invested in a franchise system that pays to play. Try selling relegation to potential investors. Your millions could be sunk by the poor performance of temperamental employees on a soccer field.  Methinks not.

Critics abound. US soccer without an up and down escalator undermines the development of talent. Teams and players with little to play for are not motivated. There is no fire under their butts. No fear. It does not bring out the best. And competitiveness suffers. “ I disagree,” says Rodriguez, “In sixteen years of our league, we have had nine different champions. That speaks to an overall competitiveness, top to bottom, that is probably unrivaled by any other league in the world.” MLS’s preferred option for motivation is a play-off system like other US sports. Last year, with two weeks left in the season, ten teams were still competing for seven playoff spots. Competitive? Yes; but certainly not relegation’s drama of life and death.

Kick Alan Black on Twitter and read his soccer column every Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle.